The acclaimed popularizer and purveyor of all things architectural scrutinizes a “tool for sitting.”
A man of boundless curiosity, Rybczynski (Emeritus, Architecture/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Mysteries of the Mall: And Other Essays, 2015, etc.) turns his roving eye to something found in every home: the common yet paradoxical chair, which “endures, even as it never ceases to change.” But this isn’t a mere design history; it’s also a “chronicle of human behavior.” The author is fascinated with chairs because they “address both physiology and fashion.” They try to balance artistry, status, gravity, construction, and comfort. As he notes, chairs “are inanimate objects, but they speak to us.” Rybczynski is particularly taken by the ancient Greek klismos chair, “considered by many to be the most graceful chair ever made.” It was a beautifully proportioned chair for everyday use, a “sitting tool distilled to its essence….It’s perfect.” Accompanying the description is one of the author’s delicate, hand-drawn illustrations, which appear throughout the book. His succinct discussion of why the ancient Chinese switched from sitting on the floor to chairs is marvelous. The “quintessential” American chair, the rocker, probably appeared in the early 1700s. By the 1820s, it was a “national fad.” The “Henry Ford of chairs” is the “landmark figure” Michael Thonet. Not only did he invent a new technique for making chairs in the 19th century, he also created a way to mass-produce them. The Adirondack chair emerged in 1903, while the fold-up aluminum chair popped up in 1947 at the same time as the “stately” BarcaLounger. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Eames brothers’ shell chairs were the rage. Now, “the most common chair on the planet” is the “furniture equivalent of rubber flip-flops.” It’s the plastic, monobloc chair, which has literally littered our planet.
Rybczynski is totally engaging in this smoothly flowing, sharp, witty narrative—another winner from a top-notch writer on design.